How To Keep Conflict From Turning Toxic

Whenever a conflict erupts between us, it eventually ends with one of us checking out, either emotionally or physically leaving the room. This has become a fairly predictable pattern and it seems to get us nowhere. What are we doing wrong?

Few things are more destructive to a new marriage than coping with conflict by withdrawing. And since this has become a repetitive way of dealing with your conflict, it is particularly important that you take note of some important research conducted by Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington. For more than twenty years, he has been studying marriages has identified the signs in conflict that almost always spell disaster. He calls them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” And when they gallop into your relationship, danger is imminent.

We first talked about these horsemen in Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, but they are so critically important to fighting fair, that they deserve review. The first is criticism. This is different from complaining, which generally focuses on behavior. Criticism focuses on the person: “You never turn off the hall light.” Complaining, on the other hand, would say: “I feel frustrated when the hall light is left on.” It may seem like a subtle difference, but research shows that this fine line makes a significant difference in your quarrel quotient. To keep them straight, remember this general rule: criticism usually begins with “You . . .” and entails blaming, making a personal attack or an accusation, while complaining begins with “I . . .” and is a negative comment about something you wish were otherwise.

The next toxic sign to avoid in your fighting is contempt. This is name-calling, humiliation, and hostile humor intended to insult and harm your partner. Contempt will poison every marriage. Once it is let loose, its venom does damage in ways we never could have imagined. Contempt comes when we say, for example, “You are such a jerk; I can’t belive you have to be reminded about every little thing in this house.” It can also be conveyed much more subtly with the role of the eyes or a sarcastic glance. Contempt causes our partner to feel belittled and hurt.

Contempt often leads to the next negative sign: defensiveness. After all, who wouldn’t put up their guard in response to a belittling spouse. “You were the one who turned the light on, not me!” These kinds of defensive statements become a reflex in homes where contempt is used. As understandable as this response is, however, it is still destructive. Why? Because the conflict escalates in the face of defenses rather than getting resolved.

The final “horseman” is stonewalling which occurs when couples reach rock bottom. Feeling overwhelmed by emotions, stonewallers withdraw by presenting a “stone wall” response. They try to keep their faces immobile, avoid eye-contact, hold their necks rigid, and avoid nodding their heads or making the small sounds that would indicate they are listening. When stonewalling enters a conflict, so does icy distance, and disapproval.

From your own description, you and your partner often encounter this fourth horseman. If this is true, we recommend that you waste no time in seeing a competent marriage counselor who can work with you to break this destructive pattern. The more entrenched this pattern becomes, the more difficult it is to break it. The good news is that you can learn to fight constructively no matter what your condition if you are both willing to work at it. Your conflicts don’t have to lead to withdrawal. So get the help your relationship needs. It just might be the most important thing you do for each other.

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